WASHINGTON — The smoking lamp is going out all across the Navy’s submarine fleet, where the mission to “run silent, run deep” now will be carried out by sailors ordered to run undersea operations without cigarettes, cigars or pipes.
This is the latest front in the long war against tobacco declared by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Their programs to help military personnel kick the smoking habit are intended to protect the health of the current force — and to save the government hundreds of millions of dollars a year in health care costs for those who have served, and smoked, in uniform.
The Navy is cognizant that military service is stressful, especially in long and lonely deployments under the sea. Everybody is aware that smoking is a legal, if harmful, stress reliever.
So the Navy banned smoking aboard submarines not with the stated purpose of curing the smokers, but of protecting nonsmoking submarine crew members from the threat of heart and lung disease from secondhand smoke.
“Recent testing has proven that, despite our atmosphere purification technology, there are unacceptable levels of secondhand smoke in the atmosphere of a submerged submarine,” said Vice Adm. John J. Donnelly, commander of submarine forces. “The only way to eliminate risk to our nonsmoking sailors is to stop smoking aboard our submarines.”
The Navy did not order its submariners to quit cold turkey. For the 5,000 sailors who admitted to being smokers among the submarine fleet’s 13,000 crew members — that is just shy of 40 percent — the ban goes into effect at the end of the year.
In the meantime, a senior petty officer aboard each hunter-killer submarine and each nuclear ballistic missile boat will serve as a “smoking cessation coordinator,” helping sailors wean themselves off the habit through discipline — and a ready supply of nicotine gum, nicotine patches and other replacement therapies.
There are no plans to impose a “smokeless Navy.” Aboard surface warships, smoking is allowed in specially designated — and open — areas. Across the Navy, those who wish to quit smoking can attend classroom programs. And in many Navy and Marine Corps locations, those wishing to quit can receive help from physicians, dentists and pharmacists during a health care visit.
About one-third of all military personnel say they are smokers. While smoking is banned in basic training, more than a third of the current smokers across the armed services say they started after they went on active duty.
The military and cigarettes have a long history, in both combat practice and combat lore. When America went to war in the past, tobacco went with them and cigarettes were part of military rations. But they are no longer contained in the Meals Ready to Eat field food packages, as the Defense Department does not want to officially encourage smoking.
Now that legacy is seen only in the water-resistant matches placed in combat rations and officially defended as a survival tool. (But has anybody in Iraq had to build a campfire lately?)
While supporting efforts to help the troops cut back on smoking, senior Pentagon officials rebuffed proposals to ban tobacco use in the combat zone, having assessed that personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan had enough pressure to deal with already.
Even as the Pentagon tries to quash cigarette smoking, the lore remains.
The superstition about bringing down bad luck if you are “third on a match” has roots stretching to World War I, when soldiers came to believe that you could light two cigarettes off one match without being spotted, but that lighting up the third cigarette gave enemy snipers ample time to ready, aim and fire.
Even more archaic is the maritime term “smoking lamp.”
According to a Navy history Web site, this phrase dates to the 16th century, when a lamp was stoked near the ship’s galley to draw tobacco users away from where gunpowder was stored.
The term has survived as a nautical figure of speech.
“The smoking lamp is lit” designates those times and places for smoking; but when a skipper says, “The smoking lamp is out,” it means crush out your cigarettes now.
A ban on smoking is not the only change in life and culture charted for the submarine force.
The Pentagon is lifting a decades-old ban on women serving aboard submarines, which will be phased in as the undersea vessels are retrofitted over coming years for coed life and work by 2012. Women went to sea aboard surface warships in 1993.
By THOM SHANKER
Nytimes, June 20, 2010